Opinion: are we about to witness a historic moment as the one-time bitter political rivals join forces in government?

By Mel Farrell, Royal Irish Academy

Since the foundation of the Irish State in 1922, its politics have been dominated by two political behemoths. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil trace their origins to the 1917-21 independence movement led by Eamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. Every government since 1932 has been led by one party or the other (Cumann na nGaedheal, Fine Gael's parent party, governed the state until 1932). For almost a century, the two parties have been bitter rivals with an organisational presence in every constituency. Loyalty to one or the other still runs deep in many homes.

However, the increasingly fragmented nature of Irish politics since the financial crisis has led to changes. In 2016, we had "confidence and supply" and now, the two parties are engaged in "detailed policy discussions" around government formation. This would represent a historic moment in Irish political history. Perhaps now is the time to look again at the evolution of these two parties and the cliché of "Civil War politics".

The Treaty and the split

Although the two parties have common origins, their evolution as distinct entities occurred over a ten-year period from 1923 to 1933. The terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed on December 6th 1921, prised Ireland’s independence movement apart. While a formal Sinn Féin split was avoided at the party’s February 1922 Ard Fheis, its pro- and anti-Treaty factions soon formed their own political structures.

British Pathé report on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty

However, with a general election scheduled for June 22nd and the Civil War in the offing, Collins and de Valera agreed a seven point pact on May 20th. Under the pact, a joint panel of candidates was selected in accordance with existing Dáil strengths. It would be the last time many long-time colleagues canvassed together. With strong transfers between the pro- and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin candidates, the results were: 58 Pro-Treaty TDs and 36 Anti-Treaty TDs.

The Civil War

Within a week, politics took a back seat as the country descended into Civil War on June 28th. On December 7th that year, almost four months after the deaths of Griffith and Collins, a specially convened pro-Treaty conference resolved to form a new party to support W.T. Cosgrave's government. They named the new party Cumann na nGaedheal in homage to a nationalist organisation formed by Griffith in March 1900 (which later merged with the National Council to form Sinn Féin in 1905).

British Pathé footage from the Civil War in Dublin in 1922

This gave de Valera and the anti-Treatyites an opportunity to retain the evocative Sinn Féin label. The Civil War ended on May 24th 1923 and de Valera reconstituted Sinn Féin as an anti-Treaty party within weeks and pledged to abstain from the Dáil. In the August 1923 general election, Cumann na nGaedheal won 65 seats to Sinn Féin’s 44.

The birth of Fianna Fáil

In time, Sinn Féin’s abstention from the Dáil frustrated de Valera and like-minded colleagues Seán Lemass and Seán MacEntee. Most voters were more concerned with the bread-and-butter issues of unemployment and housing, while Sinn Féin’s quarrel with Cumann na nGaedheal seemed rooted in the 1921 Treaty debate and the abstract ideal of "the Republic". In March 1925, the Irish Independent ridiculed Sinn Féin’s stance arguing that its only reply to the concerns of the unemployed and tenement dwellers was to "wait until the Republic is recognised".

In March 1926, de Valera and his followers split from Sinn Féin over the question of abstentionism and announced that they would set up a new republican party. From its foundation on May 16th 1926, Fianna Fáil focussed on those bread-and-butter issues by developing a radical social and economic programme. In August 1927, de Valera led the party into the Dáil where they occupied the opposition benches. Voters responded favourably as Fianna Fáil gained 9% and won 57 seats in the snap election that followed in September.

From RTÉ Archives, a Seven Days' report on Fianna Fáil's golden jubilee in 1976

In the February 1932 election, Fianna Fáil won 72 seats to Cumann na nGaedheal’s 57. Labour were the main casualties of the Fianna Fáil advance, declining from 22 seats in June 1927 to just 7 seats in 1932. The peaceful transfer of power from Civil War victor to Civil War vanquished in March 1932– just nine years after the end of that conflict – was an act of great political maturity, especially at a time when Europe was increasingly dominated by dictators.

The emergence of Fine Gael 

If Fianna Fáil had evolved from its anti-Treaty roots by moving to the political left, Cumann na nGaedheal was forced to move to the right. In truth, Cumann na nGaedheal had never succeeded in bringing the whole of the pro-Treaty vote under its wing. During the 1920s, the Farmers' Party challenged it in several rural constituencies while the formation of the National League and independents also competed for pro-Treaty votes.  

The prospects for an accommodation between Cumann na nGaedheal and those to its right had improved now that it was in opposition to a Fianna Fáil government that was engaged in an "Economic War" with Britain. In late December 1932, Cosgrave’s party gave him a mandate to negotiate a merger with the National Centre Party, which now represented farming interests and was led by Frank MacDermot. However, the move was scuppered when de Valera announced a snap election on January 2nd 1933.

Another defeat to de Valera left Cumann na nGaedheal with 48 seats as the Centre Party picked up 11 seats. Now in a stronger position, the Centre Party pushed for a genuine merger rather than their absorption by Cosgrave’s party. However, the spring and summer of 1933 saw a third force emerge in Irish politics, namely the Blueshirts. The nature of Blueshirtism remains a subject of controversy, but its growth in 1933 was linked to the Economic War.

From RTÉ Archives, an excerpt from Nick Coffey's 2001 documentary Patriots to a Man, The Blueshirts and Their Times

Figures in both Cumann na nGaedheal and the Centre Party were keen to bring the Blueshirts into the merger process to add dynamism and dilute the appearance of a Cumann na nGaedheal takeover. The merger process was completed on September 8th 1933 with the launch of the United Ireland Party/Fine Gael. Fine Gael became the more common name for the party after the resignation of Blueshirt leader Eoin O'Duffy from the party in September 1934. In October 1936, the affairs of the Blueshirts were quietly wound down, though Fine Gael has struggled to shake-off the legacy of its association with them.

"A putative grand coalition"

After the Civil War, Sinn Féin’s successor parties evolved their own distinct identities and cultures. They succeeded in normalising politics within a democratic framework during a turbulent period in Irish and European history and reflected the complexities of Irish society. While the two parties were prone to rhetorically re-fight the Civil War down to the 1960s, many of those who supported the Treaty were in fact voting for Fianna Fáil by 1932 and continued so to do. As supporters of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil grapple with the implications of a putative grand coalition, perhaps post 2005 Germany where Christian Democrats and Social Democrats have governed together in coalition may offer a suitable reference point?

Dr Mel Farrell is director of the Irish Humanities Alliance at the Royal Irish Academy. He is the author of "Party Politics in a New Democracy'' (Palgrave, 2017) and a former Irish Research Council awardee

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ